Ethan Kee learned from the best center in the country last year.
Now he's front and center.
Kee, a college junior from Plano, is the starting center for the Wisconsin-Whitewater football team. On Friday night he'll play in the biggest game of his life, when the Warhawks take on North Central in the Stagg Bowl for the NCAA Division III national championship.
Kee and the team left Wisconsin on Tuesday for the game in Shenandoah, Texas that will be broadcast on ESPNU at 7 p.m. Friday night.
"It's pretty unique, to go on a plane Tuesday for a game Friday, kind of cool," Kee said by phone Wednesday. "I think the feeling of making it has not yet hit me. It will hit me [Thursday] and Friday."
It's a new experience for Kee, but not for the program. Whitewater (13-1), ranked seventh in the country by D3football.com in the final regular season poll, will be making its 10th championship game appearance in the last 15 years. This is North Central's first appearance.
"It's definitely nice," said Kee, an IBCA All-Stater while at Plano. "You work so hard in high school growing up. This is what you play for. It's nice to see all the hard work pay off."
Kee as a sophomore last year played in nine games as a backup to Trewyn Earns, who won the Rimington Award as the top center in Division III. Trewyn is currently on the practice squad of the NFL's Los Angeles Rams.
"I was under his wing, and he taught me a lot," Kee said. "I questioned every play, is my technique right, the angles. I'm thankful he had the patience to handle me. After he graduated it was kind of time for me to step up."
Kee sprained his ankle during camp and missed the first three games of this season, but has started ever since.
"I'm more patient and calm this year," Kee said. "Last year I'd get into a game and think 'Oh my god.' This year it's a lot different. The game's slower."
Whitewater won its first nine games this season, before losing to Wisconsin-Oshkosh 27-20 in the regular season finale in a game in which the Warhawks outgained their opponent and led going into the fourth quarter. The Warhawks received an at-large bid to the Division III playoffs after the loss.
"It humbled us I think," Kee said.
The Warhawks rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs, then beat St. John's (Minn.) in a 35-32 semifinal thriller last weekend.
Whitewater kicked a field goal with 2:10 left, then made a defensive stop in the last minutes.
"It was probably one of the most fun games I've ever been a part of," Kee said. "It was back and forth, all the buildup. We were pretty physical on both sides of the ball. We got after it defensively and offensively every time we scored."
Kee and Whitewater now set their sights on trying to win the program's seventh national title. Standing in their way is fifth-ranked North Central and its dynamic offense led by Neuqua Valley graduate Broc Rutter at quarterback and South Elgin's Andrew Kamienski at wide receiver. Kamienski caught 11 passes for 112 yards and four touchdowns in North Central's 45-14 semifinal win over Muhlenberg.
"I think it will be pretty physical," Kee said. "They have a great offense, and a great team. I think the biggest part of the game will be up front. Their O-line is pretty good and physical, known to be one of the most physical groups in the country."